This week we saw the good and the bad of New England's secondary. A unit filled with question marks as the season began, the Patriots' secondary has been a pleasant surprise thus far this season.
Youngsters Brandon Merriweather and Brandon McGowan have become playmakers at the safety spots, while veterans Leigh Bodden and Shawn Springs have made key contributions at the corners. Even wide receiver Randy Moss got into the act, intercepting Kyle Orton on the final play of the first half. It was the first pick Orton has thrown this season.
Even with safety James Sanders out for the game, the secondary got off to a good start against the Broncos, who managed just seven points in the first half. With less than three minutes to go, Denver faced a key third-and-4, but Springs dove to knock away a pass intended for Eddie Royal. Later in the quarter, the pass coverage led to a big sack of Orton on another third-down play.
However, when the offense could not take advantage of its final possession, Orton had a final crack at the secondary in overtime. Orton picked the secondary apart, completing his first four attempts before missing Royal on a deep ball in which Royal and Springs got their feet tangled up. Orton's passing set up the 41-yard field goal by Matt Prater that gave the Broncos a 20-17 win.
As the game wore on, the Patriots struggled to get pressure on Orton. The overtime drive couple with a 98-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive to tie the game exposed an inability of the New England defense to stop drives at key moments.
In the end, Orton finished the game 35-of-48 for 330 yards and two touchdown passes. That kind of effort needs to be improved moving forward. Orton had completed just 59 percent of his passes heading into the game, but he hit on 73 percent against the hot-and-cold Patriots secondary.
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With Fred Taylor out, the Patriots were not able to get a running game established against Denver. New England averaged just 3.6 yards per attempt on 27 carries. Sammy Morris led the way with 68 yards on 17 carries. The lack of a running game impacted the passing, as Tom Brady completed just 57.6 percent of his attempts, including just one pass to Randy Moss.
Second-year linebacker Jerod Mayo was back in the lineup for the first time since the season opener. His impact was immediate, as he had six tackles and forced a fumble recovered by defensive back Brandon McGowan. It'll be interesting to see how Mayo's return impacts the status of veteran free agent Junior Seau, who is expected to re-sign with New England this week.
-- RB Laurence Maroney, even with Fred Taylor out, didn't assert himself in the offense. His first carry didn't come until the second quarter, and he finished the game with just five carries for 21 yards. On top of that, he lost his kick returning duties, as rookie Julian Edelman handled the chores, returning four kicks, averaging 23.3 yards per return.
-- TE Ben Watson has re-emerged as a major option for the offense. When the Patriots brought in Chris Baker and Alex Smith in the offseason, Watson's roster spot was a major question mark. Through five games this season, he already has 14 catches for 187 yards and three touchdown catches as the Patriots have relied more on multi-tight end sets. His situation bears watching, as Watson suffered a head injury in the third quarter and did not return.
-- WR Randy Moss was held without a reception in the first half, and had just one catch for the game. He did manage to record his first career interception on the final play of the first half on a Hail Mary attempt by Denver's Kyle Orton.
-- LT Matt Light left the game early in the fourth quarter with a leg injury. Rookie Sebastian Vollmer stepped in Light's place and played the remainder of the game.
-- QB Tom Brady lost an overtime game for the first time in his career. Brady had directed seven overtime wins as a starter with New England before Sunday's game.
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